The Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 provides for a number of measures to enforce its permit requirements. There are substantial penalties, including seizure of objects, fines and imprisonment, for persons exporting or importing protected objects from or into Australia illegally.
Under the PMCH Act, an Australian protected object exported without, or contravening the conditions of, a permit or certificate is considered an illegal export and is liable to forfeiture. Foreign cultural property exported in contravention to the law of its country of origin and imported into Australia is considered an illegal import and is also liable to forfeiture.
Breaches of the PMCH Act can result in substantial penalties, including seizure of objects, fines of up to $200,000 or up to 5 years' imprisonment.
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service has an important role in detecting illegal exports and imports of cultural property.
The Australian Federal Police also works collaboratively with partner agencies to investigate and seize illegal exports and imports of cultural objects as required.
The Minister for the Arts may appoint inspectors to enforce the provisions of the PMCH Act. Members of the Australian Federal Police and the police forces of the respective States and Territories are automatically appointed inspectors.
Inspectors may, with or in certain circumstances without a warrant:
- enter upon the land or upon or into the premises, structure, vessel, aircraft or vehicle
- search the land, premises, structure, vessel, aircraft or vehicle for Australian protected objects or foreign protected objects imported into Australia
- seize any such objects and related material found there that they believe on reasonable grounds to be forfeited or connected with an offence under the Act
- arrest any persons suspected of committing, or having committed, an offence under the Act
- Seize any object that they believe on reasonable grounds to be forfeited.
Seizure and forfeiture
Inspectors may seize any object that they believe on reasonable grounds to be obtained unlawfully. Once an Australian protected object is seized, provisions for notification and claim apply. The same provisions apply to suspected foreign protected objects where the foreign country has requested their return.
The PMCH Act requires that a 'notice of seizure' be issued 'as soon as practicable' following the physical seizure of objects. This notice must contain a description of the objects being seized.
The notice of seizure requires the owner of the object to take action within 30 days in one of the following ways:
- write to the 'appropriate person' designated in the notice of seizure under subsection 36(5) of the PMCH Act.
- take immediate action in the courts to regain the objects prior to the expiration of the 30-day period.
At any time during this process the owner may place the issue before a court of competent jurisdiction for determination.
If these actions are unsuccessful, the object is forfeited under paragraph 38(a) of the PMCH Act and all title in the object is vested in the Commonwealth without further proceedings.
If the owner takes no action during the initial 30-day period, the object would forfeit automatically to the Commonwealth.
On forfeiture, the object may be disposed of in accordance with the direction of the Minister. In the case of foreign protected objects, the Minister usually directs that they be returned to the requesting country. Forfeited Australian protected objects are usually placed in an appropriate Australian public collecting institution for the benefit of all Australians.
- Argentina: Fossilised dinosaur bones and plants
- Australia: Gold nugget
- Australia: 1921 Fowler Steam Stump Puller Traction Engine No. 15725
- Australia: 1911 Marshall Road Locomotive Traction Engine No. 57602
- Cambodia: Bangles with human remains
- China: Fossilised dinosaur eggs
- Egypt: Funerary objects
- Greece: Greek antiquities
- Indonesia: Asmat skull
- Indonesia: Tek sing ceramics
- Jordan: Jordanian pots
- Malaysia: Incised human skulls
- New Zealand: Replica Maori feeding funnel
- Philippines: Shipwreck stoneware
- Spain: 15th century Ptolemy map